Marion Roberts , Voices from the Factory Floor

Cookes Explosives, Penrhyndeudraeth (1953 - 1959)

Interviewee: VN011 Marion Roberts

Date: 20: 01: 2014

Interviewer: Kate Sullivan on behalf of Women's Archive Wales

Marion worked first as a children's nurse after leaving school, then returned to Penrhyndeudraeth. Her father, who was already working in the powder factory, asked the manager for a job for his daughter. She worked in the canteen, serving and cleaning for four years, and she remembers vividly the big explosion of 1957: “I was at the tub and there was a bang, and the tub and the chair, went sliding down the canteen, but not a drop of water spilled out from it. And we ran to the window and Mrs Williams shouted, 'Don't go to the windows, it's dangerous.' Four were killed that day, in that cwt. It was a dangerous place, but you never thought about it when you were there.” She also remembers the time they were filming 'Inn of the Sixth Happiness' in Penrhyn and she and a friend sneaked out of work to get Ingrid Bergman's autograph! She married a man who also worked there, leaving to have her first child in 1959 and didn't return to the factory afterwards but says that her time in Cookes was the happiest in her working life.

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Interview. Marion Roberts , Voices from the...

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Marion with the powder workers. Her husband is...

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Marion with her first son, Gorwel, c.1959

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Ingrid Bergman's autograph on the...

Marion was born on 7th October, 1932. She was born and brought up in Penrhyndeudraeth, in the same street where she now lives. She went away to work for a while but returned to the area. Her father was a baker and her mother was a confectioner. Her father ran his own business and her mother helped make the bread and cakes, etc. During the war they would get stuff off the black market.

She was an only child and would have liked a brother or sister but her mother was unable to have more children. She went to Penrhyndeudraeth school and then on to the grammar school in Bermo. She left when she was fifteen years old, as she’d had a gutsful, even though she had considered going to college to train to be a confectioner like her mother. She decided to be a children’s nurse, but first of all went to work in Macleans’ draper shop in Porthmadog in 1948 for ten shillings a week. During the first month she was trained in how to serve customers at the counter. She worked on commission – for every pound she received six pence. One day she sold a dress, coat and hat to a woman and thought she’d earned a lot of money but was told that she would need to have been there for a month in order to receive her comission, so didn’t get a penny.

She then went to Shrewsbury to work as a children’s nurse. She had written to Barnados asking for a job. She was thrilled to get this job and didn’t feel nervous in the slightest about moving, initially to Shrewsbury and then later on to Chester. She received no formal training but learnt on the job. She cared for thirty children and spent six months in Shrewsbury, and two years in Chester.

She went on to work in a credit draper’s for a higher salary but soon after her mother became ill and she had to return to take care of her. Marion’s father had gone to work in the powder works by now, while Marian stayed at home. Her mother recovered so she found a job working with children again, this time in Caernarfon. Her father worked with salt that came to the factory in tin caskets. It was used to mix with the explosive.

She went to work at Cookes after her father asked the manager if there was a job available for her there. She didn’t have an interview but was given a medical to check her health. She was approximately twenty two years old at the time (circa 1953-4.) The war had ended but Cookes still made explosives for the coal industry.

Marian was frightened of going to work at the factory, and dreaded walking in through the gate, over the ‘Burma Road'. Many of the men from the village had been to war and had christened the way between the factory and the canteen ‘Burma Road’. In retrospect, she thinks that Cookes was the happiest place she’d ever worked. It was a very friendly place. She worked in the canteen, making food for hundreds of employess. There were four shifts and she prepared the food for three of them: 6 until 3, 8 until 5.30 and 3 until 11.

She worked from 8 until 5.30. 'I didn’t do the cooking, I helped, I was a skivvy . .’ Her first job was removing the eyes from a large quantity of potatoes. She was in her element because she could have a scone and a cuppa during work.

The ten o’clock shift was the first one that came to have lunch. The workers would come to the hot plate and the cook would serve. Lunch and pudding cost one shilling. She had to wash the dishes afterwards and clear the tables.

She earned approximately five pounds a week until she got married. She went part-time after getting married, and would leave at 4.00pm. She earned four pounds and ninety five pence. It was hard work. “Three of us would scrub the canteen every Wednesday, it was a huge room, Jean, Megan and I. And every Wednesday Megan would be ill, and it would be just me and Jean, ha, ha.”

She worked a five day week, with no weekend work. Some girls worked a late shift but Marion was on days and didn’t change shift. They were given a free Christmas lunch, so everybody who worked there took advantage of this and ate in the canteen on that day. There could be up to 600 of them. The Christmas lunch was always on the Monday before Christmas and the canteen girls had to work all day the previous Sunday.

Everybody was friends, both men and women. As well as her father, Marion had cousins who worked there, one of whom was killed there. Accidents didn’t happen often, but could be fatal when they did happen. An accident happened in August 1957, not long after she got married. She was cycling to work about a quarter to eight and met three of the girls on the way. She had to break suddenly to avoid one of them who called Nanni. She arrived at work and hadn’t been there long when she heard the explosion:

“Four were killed that day, in that shed.”

One man was killed, and three women – one of whom was Nanni and another who had a young son. Everybody came to the canteen and Marion made tea for the detonator girls. Many had fainted. A man came from the office and shouted everybody’s number out to find out who was there, and alive, and who wasn’t and had died. The canteen girls were there until five o’clock and Marion felt fine until she went home and told her mother. She started crying and told her mother she wouldn’t be going back there but the following morning she went back, just like everybody else did. Everybody went to the funeral in Minffordd. It was dangerous for those working in the sheds.

30:00 There were some health and safety rules but not to the same extent as today. Nearly everybody smoked in those days and there were little machines on the wall to light the cigarettes as they weren’t allowed to take matches in to work. Later one, the company started conducting searches to ensure nobody took matches in. They weren’t allowed to take money into the sheds either, just in case they caused a spark. Marion was on the till and would look after the money for them until lunch time.

Many would become ill due to the gelignite, and their hair would go orange. The nitro glycerine that was used there affected the heart. This happened to her sister-in-law. The doctor visited nearly every week to examine the workers (not the canteen girls though.) There was also a nurse on every shift.

She remembers an explosion in 1969 when she was a child. She was on the beach, wearing only knickers (she didn’t have a swim suit) and the explosion was so strong that debris landed on the beach. She ran home in her knickers, crying and remembers seeing everybody running from the factory. She remembers another explosion (perhaps the same one mentioned when she worked there in 1957) and saw the captain of the Salvation Army on his knees outside the gate, praying.

37:00 The bosses were conscientious but the pay was better under ICI than under Cookes. Marion’s supervisor was very strict. She remembers preparing the potatoes one day and happened to see a Rolls Royce jeeps, Chinese people and cameras on the beach. They were filming 'Inn of the Sixth Happiness' and Marion was convinced that Ingrid Bergman was in the Rolls. Her and her friend Jean jumped over the factory wall, ran over the railway, down to the beach and into the water in their overalls. She tapped the window of the Rolls Royce and saw Ingrid Bergman sitting there. She said, 'Oh I'm sorry to disturb you, but could I have your autograph?' 'Yes, certainly, have you got a pen and a piece of paper? She had a pencil and a packet of Woodbines, which she emptied and got the autograph on that. They were sent away by security and Mrs Williams the supervisor, was shouting when they returned. She told her that Ingrid Berman was on the beach, and that she’d got her autograph. She still has it. (VN011.6).

43:00 Marion wore green overalls and a net on her hair to work. The workers in the sheds wore blue or black overalls made from a thick woollen fabric and special shoes. There was a laundry service there. They removed their overalls at the end of the week and got them cleaned. The canteen girls didn’t have to pay for their lunch either but had to have it at 10.30 in the morning. They had their tea at 3:30 in the afternoon.

There was a union there and she was a member. Workers weren’t obliged to join but the majority did. They paid their subs to a man called Sam, who didn’t actually work there. There was never a strike there. People were scared of losing their jobs but she remembers being happy there.

The factory would be shut during the last week of July and the first week of August. Her wage had increased considerably by the time she left. She would buy clothes but after she married she had to pay rent, and pay for furniture, etc. Her husband got a job as a driver in Cookes, taking explosives to Warrington and South Wales. She married in 1957 when she was 24 and he was 30.

51:00 Her rent was high, so she took in tourists during the holidays on a bed and breakfast basis.

She had her son in 1959 and gave up her job before he was born. She had her second son two years later, shortly after her mother died. When the children were of school age she went to work as a home help. Even though Cookes was the happiest place she’d worked in she didn’t want to return. She worked at Port Meirion for a while when they were filming the Sixties series, ‘The Prisoner.’

The Cookes Christmas lunch would be held in a hotel. When ICI ran the company they would give a safe driving award every year, and hold a party where everything was free. Marion worked in the powder factory for 4-5 years. It was hard work there but everybody was very happy. She can’t remember in which year the company was taken over by ICI.

The social club was at the bottom of the street – with dances, singers, and a bar. There would also be a Christmas party for the children. The workers themselves ran the club. Marion didn’t go there often.

Marion is still in touch with former colleagues and sees some of them every week. There were people working there from Blaenau Ffestinog and Porthmadog (two buses every shift) as well as Penrhyndeudraeth. The workers were Welsh speakers but the bosses spoke English. The canteen girls sang as they worked. She remembers ‘Workers Playtime’ coming to Penrhyndeudraeth during the war when her auntie worked at the factory, and everybody there was singing.

As well as naming the new road between Miners’ Safety and Cookes ‘Burma Road’, the workers christened the place where they mixed the powder in the sheds ‘Klondyke’.

Duration: 1 hour

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